Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Number You Are Calling Has Been Disconnected Due To Lack Of Payment (Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters II)

The essential premise of the film Ghostbusters, when you get down to it, is that three upper middle class academics have to slum it in a working class job like exterminators. Yes, it layers all sorts of wacky paranormal goofiness onto that, but at the end of the day, that's what it's about - the absurdity of working class paranormal experts. 

Class issues are perhaps the most overlooked aspect of video gaming. Reams of text exist on gender and video games. Smaller reams exist on race and video games. Very little exists on the issue of class and economics in video games.

Those approaches that do exist focus on things like Farmville. I'll take Jonathan Blow here, the creator of Braid, the best video game of the last decade. (The website fails to mention that Braid is also available from the Mac app store. This blog gets about 200 readers a day, so far as I can tell. I assume some of you have played Braid before, but if Braid does not get 150 purchases within the next 48 hours from you lot, you have done it wrong. Go buy Braid. If you like this blog, you will like the game. Period.) But in an interview with Gamasutra, Blow says:
It's about "How do we make something that looks cute and that projects positivity" -- but it actually makes people worry about it when they're away from the computer and drains attention from their everyday life and brings them back into the game. Which previous genres of game never did. And it's about, "How do we get players to exploit their friends in a mechanical way in order to progress?" And in that or exploiting their friends, they kind of turn them in to us and then we can monetize their relationships. And that's all those games are, basically.
In other words, and I think Blow is absolutely correct here, the point of Farmville is to treat the player's time as labor. Fun is given as a reward for investing sufficient amounts of labor into the game. The games thus work specifically by deferring the player's fun - by promising them that in the future they might get to have fun, just so long as they play more.

In a way, this is a regression towards the old arcade stimulus - insert a quarter to die again. But in practice it has merged with the equally disgusting trend towards "gamification," a word that cannot have enough scare quotes put on it. In the arcade mode, fun is dished out in increments. Skill allows you to buy fun more efficiently. But when you insert a quarter, you are definitely buying 25 cents of fun. But the gamification model removes fun from the occasion - instead, you invest your labor as labor and get a reward - victory. The point of Farmville is not that crop harvesting is fun, it's that crop harvesting is the labor you have to invest to get shinies.

(Yes, I am conflating social gaming and gamification. Why? Because they're the same fucking trend.)

But for all that Farmville is an extreme example, once you take the step of equating gameplay and labor, overt Marxism is difficult to avoid. With bad games, that's downright easy - it's next to impossible not to read something like Frankenstein: The Monster Returns as anything other than a game in which you experience endless misery for the arbitrary prize of "winning." But it's true of good games too. It's hilariously easy to read Gauntlet as a chilling parable of the underclass working themselves literally to death (as their lifeforce ticks away, they desperately try to eke out just a few more kills). Video gaming is a medium about class. That's why we don't talk about class - because the nature of the game is the exploitation of labor as a mechanism of producing more labor. You play a game to be taught to play more game.

What, then, do we make of Ghostbusters, a game adaptation of a movie that is already about the exploitative nature of labor under late capitalism? Well, let's start with Ghostbusters II, because it's by far the simpler angle. Ghostbusters II is a completely shitty game in which you flail about ineffectually platforming. Being a tie-in game, it exists mostly to prove that the ethical bankruptcy of Farmville is not a new phenomenon in video gaming, rather the existence of intelligent people like Jonathan Blow who believe that video gaming can and should be better and are willing to be vocal about it is a new phenomenon.

Ghostbusters II is a masterful piece of cynicism. On the back of a reasonably successful (due to being pretty darn good) licensed game and a new movie, Ghostbusters II is nothing more than an attempt to argue that your enjoyment of the film creates in you a moral obligation to buy and play a game regardless of its actual content. That is, after all, the central rhetoric of the licensed game - the content doesn't matter, because you buy the game on the basis of its branding. The gameplay is simply the labor you must endure in order to fulfill your existing contract formed only on the basis of your appreciation for the movie and previous games, i.e. fun that you have already paid for but that somehow was in excess of what you paid and thus amounts to a debt on your part.

Ghostbusters, on the other hand, is a supremely not-half-bad game, at least for half of it. (The concluding portion of the game, in which you climb Zuul's tower, is easily one of the worst gameplay mechanics ever, and unless you engage in some radically postmodernist reading in which the misery of this experience is a commentary on the relationship of the gamer and the product of his labor, you should simply ignore it as a trainwreck) But what is interesting about it is specifically that it is a good game that plays on a mechanic of labor.

See, the Ghostbusters have exactly the problem you'd expect them to have - they have virtually no money and still have to defend the city from a siege of ghosts. Even though the city direly needs them to solve its ghost problem, it's still going to charge them. Perhaps most ludicrously, there is an entire store dedicated to selling ghost catching supplies. The world is on the brink of ending, and they are still charging in a business-as-usual fashion. There is, in fact, a minimum $4000 investment to have even an abstract chance of helping the problem.

From there, you spend most of the game balancing cash flow - trying to catch enough ghosts so that you can actually afford to catch ghosts, while simultaneously trying to build up sufficient "savings" to buy the equipment needed to survive Zuul's Tower, which, of course, you won't. Perhaps most tellingly, Ghostbusters is the only game I am aware of in which the world can end because you were too poor to buy gas. In other words, the game is about the need to have sufficient quantities of money in order to play the game effectively.

Ghostbusters, then, is a rare game - a game that allegorizes labor and class, as opposed to simply using those concepts for the further exploitation of the player. There are better games, for sure. But there may well not be fairer ones.


  1. Ah! Why has it taken me so long to come across this blog? Truthfully, I came upon it while clicking on the followers of a different blog I like. Why? I liked the name of it (your blog, not the other one). After reading this post, I'll certainly be back to read not only your upcoming posts, but your old ones, too. :)

  2. I remember thinking the exact same thing. Check the one on Cabal. After reading it I considered becoming a hacky-sack Buddhist as a means of attaining exclusive enlightenment.

  3. His one on Batman is also very good and worth checking out.

  4. Every man is subject to the powers above him, even if he's... playing God.